Larisa de Lima might consider herself a wedding planner. But that wouldn't quite capture her skill set.
She matched couples. She helped them get marriage licenses. And, of course, she produced their weddings. But there was a problematic hole in her résumé of matrimonial success.
The arrangements were all a sham, authorities say — aimed at dodging deportation agents instead of seeking wedded bliss.
De Lima, 59, supported by a cast of family members and recruiters, is accused of orchestrating one of the biggest marriage fraud rackets in South Florida history. She matched up almost 20 young Cuban-American women who are lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens with a similar number of undocumented immigrants from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
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The fictitious marriages allowed the undocumented immigrants to attain lawful residency, obtain a green card and pursue a path to citizenship in the United States, thanks to their Cuban-American wives’ special immigration status.
“It was very organized and very lucrative,” Anthony Salisbury, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, said in an interview this week. “She was making $20,000 off the top.”
De Lima, who was born in the Ukraine and lived in Brazil before being naturalized as a U.S. citizen, charged the undocumented immigrants $25,000 and then paid their Cuban-American spouses at least $5,000 for their roles.
It was very organized and very lucrative. She was making $20,000 off the top.
Anthony Salisbury, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami
De Lima’s scheme, which lasted from 2013 to 2015, unraveled when some of the female spouses began cooperating with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They told authorities that de Lima and her family “staged” the weddings at their Miami home — even taking photographs of the ceremony and reception — and conducted “mock” interviews with the spouses so they could complete the government reviews of the marriages “without being suspected of fraud,” according to a criminal complaint.
De Lima, arrested in May, enlisted her husband, Almir, and her daughter, Milena Diaz, in the scheme as notaries who signed off on the false marriage licenses and assisted her in arranging the unlawful nuptials, according to an indictment. Both have pleaded guilty to marriage fraud conspiracy and related offenses. The daughter was sentenced to six months, while the husband awaits sentencing. De Lima remains in federal custody without bond as she contemplates her fate.
“We’re in discussions with the U.S. attorney’s office to decide whether the case will be tried or plead out,” said her defense attorney, Michael B. Cohen.
De Lima tapped into a unique pool of Cuban-American women who have a special immigration status, according to the indictment. After living here for a year, Cubans are automatically adjusted to lawful residency and can apply for citizenship — and any foreign national who marries them qualifies for the same privileges. She used recruiters, such as Vivian Gonzalez, to find some of the women to match up with the undocumented immigrants, according to the indictment.
In court papers, de Lima talked about her personal life, but not about her alleged crime. She depicted herself as a former single mother who worked three jobs to support her family and suffered a head injury in a car accident involving a drunk driver, according to letters filed in federal court. She described her husband as “mentally slow,” saying that he has attention deficit disorder, and her daughter as “very loyal” and “very smart.”
In custody since May, de Lima disclosed all this to the federal judge overseeing the case. She asked him to appoint a new attorney for her husband and to go easy on her daughter, while she criticized her initial court-appointed lawyer and requested a bond hearing.
“I am sorry I am taking your valuable time, but maybe, if people would be doing there (sic) job right, I wouldn’t have to write your honor,” de Lima wrote in an October letter to U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles.
Most of the roughly 40 defendants in de Lima’s case and related prosecutions have pleaded guilty, receiving time-served or probationary sentences. De Lima, accused of being the ringleader, could be facing a few years in prison if convicted.
So far, at least eight of the undocumented immigrants involved in the sham marriages have been deported, along with two others who were stripped of their U.S. citizenship.
Linda M. Swacina, the Miami district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the government “has no tolerance for immigration fraud,” condemning those indicted in Operation Cuban Comrade for taking “advantage of America’s generosity.”
De Lima’s case is the latest in a long series of prosecutions in Miami and other parts of the country involving undocumented immigrants who have paid thousands of dollars each to permanent residents of Cuban origin or Americans to marry them and thus be able to apply for a green card, and later citizenship.
An immigration attorney who is not involved in de Lima’s case said that marriage fraud is so pervasive in Miami because of basic supply and demand: For decades, waves of newly arrived Cuban exiles have received special status — thanks to U.S. laws stemming from the fallout of the Castro revolution — while immigrants from other nations have flocked here but overstayed their visas and are in the United States illegally.
“Many immigrants coming into this country have visas that are expiring and they become desperate,” said attorney Michael Murray, who has law offices in Miami and Austin, Texas. “At the same time, there are a lot of Cubans with green cards who are looking for extra income.
“And then there is the culture of fraud in Miami — it’s the norm that exists here,” he said. “There seems to be less of an air of criminality [about marriage fraud] when it’s done in such large numbers.”
Marriage to Cuban residents is preferable for many undocumented immigrants because close relatives of a Cuban who is granted permanent residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act may also obtain permanent residency. Another benefit: Once married to a Cuban, any condition placed on the status of an undocumented immigrant is automatically removed.
The number of fraudulent marriages has been a perennial problem for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in South Florida and other parts of the country. The agency was unable to provide statistics on the number of documented cases.
“It’s so high because of the money” that undocumented immigrants are willing to pay out to gain lawful residency and citizenship, said Homeland Security’s Salisbury.
“It’s certainly a way for someone to attack the vulnerability of the immigration system,” Salisbury said. “It’s a way to back-door into the United States to become a citizen.”
Earlier this year, 15 people — most of them Cuban Americans — were charged in a marriage fraud scheme that spanned from Georgia to Miami and other cities in the southeastern United States. The defendants — including three in Miami — conspired to marry foreign nationals for the purpose of helping them apply for permanent residency.
Two similar cases came to light last year when several people, including Cuban Americans, were charged in Miami with recruiting undocumented immigrants to marry other Cubans in exchange for money. One of the Cuban Americans charged in that 2016 case allegedly received $10,000 to marry a Venezuelan so she could obtain a green card.
In another case, also in 2016, court records show that one of the Cuban-American defendants married at least 10 “husbands” between 2002 and 2012 in exchange for money.